This is a subscriber-exclusive edition of I Have Notes, a newsletter in which I share essays, interviews, advice, and notes on writing. Previously in my craft conversation series: Bryan Washington and Lydia Kiesling.
Chances are you’ve heard someone refer to writing as a solitary pursuit. It’s true that before you start sharing your work—particularly if it’s a longer project, like a book—you may spend a lot of time alone with it, drafting and problem-solving and fighting to maintain your faith in it until it’s ready for other eyes. This has been my experience with my next book, anyway; until very recently, I was the only person who’d read most of it. But my writing life is anything but isolated—it would be impossible to list all the friends and colleagues who’ve generously read and talked with me about my work, offered helpful advice, challenged me, and helped me learn over the years.
Today I’m thrilled to be able to share a conversation with two such luminaries, R. O. Kwon and Crystal Hana Kim. We met in 2018, when Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Kim’s If You Leave Me, and my memoir All You Can Ever Know were published within a few months of each other. Since then, they’ve both continued to inspire me with their work while supporting me in mine. (It’s no exaggeration to say that I might not have managed to write through the grief and uncertainty of the last several years without our group chat.) A few weeks ago, the three of us met over Zoom to compare creative rituals and favorite writing tips, share what community has meant to us in a time of rising violence against Asian Americans, and talk about where we’re currently finding joy and comfort as we all work on another round of books.
Nicole Chung: I wanted to start by asking you both how—as in, how in the world—you’ve been writing these days, and also what you’ve been working on?
R. O. Kwon: I’ve mostly been working on my next novel. I’m finding that the more I can work on it every day, even if it’s just a little, the better—though I should note that I don’t have children, and of course writing every day doesn’t work for everyone.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s piece on self-mesmerism has changed how I work and made it far more possible for me to find refuge in it, even on chaotic or stressful days (knock on wood—I’m just going to say that every time I say something nice about novel-writing). In Ingrid’s piece, she talks about how she wears a certain shade of ultramarine, reserved only for writing. When I talked to her about it, she compared it to creating a kind of holy ground where the writing happens and other things don’t. She also said that the more you do it, the more your body will become conditioned to how you define that ground and what you do there. It’s been so true for me—I have this one silk shawl that was a pandemic-sadness purchase, and it’s especially impractical for San Francisco, where I live, because it’s usually too cold here for silk. So it’s become my writing shawl, and even the feel of the fabric feels different, and devoted to writing. Inspired by Ingrid, I also change the lighting for novel writing; I have writing-related music that I only play when I write; I have a certain mug I only use when I’m writing. I have other rules while I’m wearing that shawl: no news, no social media, no email, no texts. All this means that I create a certain kind of space and give myself cues that let me know the work is happening. It also cuts down on the anxiety of starting a writing session, because history says that every time I have that shawl on, some amount of writing happens.
Crystal Hana Kim: I’m going to try that. I love that you’re protecting your writing time.
Last year, I spent a lot of time writing essays, but this year I’ve mostly been focusing on novel-writing when I’m not teaching. I used to have a set ritual of lighting candles, but my toddler has taken all my candles! He loves them, so we light them during mealtimes now. Because my life has gotten busier since having a baby in 2020, I feel a greater urgency to write. Before, because of that anxiety you mentioned, I would sometimes put off starting the act of writing. Now I want to get back into my book whenever I have the time. I will say, also, that I’m in the revision stage now, deep in the narrative world, so it’s easier for me to slip back in.
Chung: Just curious, do you enjoy drafting or revision more?
Kwon: Revision! Any first draft is a terrifying slide down a rocky, icy slope that might kill you.
Kim: The first draft is always so hard, because I’m trying to figure out what I want to say, what the characters want to do, the parameters of the questions I’m asking. It’s only in revision where I have a shape that I can then mold. Revision’s much more satisfying.